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Don't Blame TV

Look around. Nearly two-thirds of adults are either obese or overweight. The rate of overweight children ages six to 11 has more than doubled since 1980, and the rate for adolescents has tripled. This is a striking development with both immediate and long-term health consequences: Even children are now being diagnosed with Type 2 "adult onset" diabetes.

The alarming increase in obesity is a complex public health issue that demands effective response by parents, industry, physicians, consumer advocates and government. One idea suggested is to ban television commercials for "junk food" directed at kids. This chestnut first surfaced at the Federal Trade Commission in the late 1970s. It didn't go anywhere then -- and it shouldn't go anywhere now. In fact, the FTC's experience with proposals like this one shows that advertising bans are like the "quick-fix" weight-loss products we challenge: appealing on the surface, but ultimately useless.

Banning junk food ads on kids' programming is impractical, ineffective and illegal. It's impractical because, although kids see many food ads on children's programming, most ads they see air on programs that are not directed to them. The FTC's 1978 proposal to ban advertising on programs for which young children comprised at least 30% of the audience would have affected only one program -- the now iconic "Captain Kangaroo."

A ban would be ineffective because there is no reason to think that the ads kids see make them obese. Although American children see thousands of food ads each year, they have done so for decades -- since long before the dramatic upswing in obesity. Today's kids actually watch less television than previous generations and have many more commercial-free choices. Even our dogs and cats are fat, and it is not because they are watching too much advertising.

Finally, a ban would be illegal. Food is not alcohol or tobacco; it's not illegal to sell food to kids. Our First Amendment requires government to demonstrate that restrictions on truthful, non-misleading commercial speech for legal products meaningfully advance a compelling interest. Because a children's advertising ban would be ineffective, it would fall far short of that test.

Attacking food advertising may offer the illusion of progress in the fight against childhood obesity. But in the end Americans must eat less and exercise more.

That said, advertising can play a role in fighting obesity. One FTC study showed that when the government changed its position and permitted cereal advertisers to make truthful claims about the relationship between fiber intake and reduced cancer risk, consumers and sellers responded. Consumers increased their consumption of high-fiber cereals, the market share for high-fiber cereals increased and more high-fiber cereals found a place on grocers' shelves.

We need to harness that same power to help fight obesity. Year after year, manufacturers have shown great ingenuity in pitching foods to kids as tasty and fun; their challenge now is to develop and promote healthy foods, too. I urge them to accept this challenge.

As food marketers respond to consumer demand for healthier foods, the FTC will do its part to ensure that advertising claims are truthful and not misleading. Consumers can count on us to patrol the marketplace for weight-loss scams and stop marketers who exploit parents' concerns about overweight and obese children.


Timothy J. Muris, The Wall Street Journal. June 25, 2004.

Copyright © 2004 Dow Jones & Company. All rights reserved.